Archive for the ‘Ancient Pacific’ Category
In Part One of this series, we learned how the mysterious Rongorongo script appeared on Easter Island at a date of unknown origin; in Part Two, we learned about the glyphs and how they’re read.
While Rongorongo remains undeciphered, there are plenty of scholars with their own theories on what the texts say.
There are about 120 symbols in Rongorongo, and numerous attempts to decipher the texts. One text that we do understand, a little bit, is just a portion from a tablet that contains a lunar calendar. And no one can actually read the calendar. But it’s a start!
While it seems like, with today’s modern technology, we should be able to crack just about any code—and isn’t that what a language is? Logical, ordered code!—there are a few obstacles to decipherment of the Rongorongo tabets. One is that there are very few texts remaining to read from, leaving only around 15,000 legible glyphs to work with.
There’s also the problem of context! Historians and linguists don’t have accurate contextual information about where the tablets came from specifically, or any illustrations or parallels to texts that they can understand. And as if that wasn’t enough, the modern language of Easter Island descendants—Rapa Nui—has been heavily influenced by Tahitian and no longer resembles its previous form (again eliminating any chance of parallels!).
What, then, do we know about the tablets’ content?
Very, very little. And we may never know!
Here are what a few attempts at decipherment came up with:
- Monsignor Jaussen (1868): Chants about the king & others doing specific tasks.
- William J. Thomson (1886): Nonsense creation chants, with beings begetting other beings.
- Dr. Alan Carroll (1982): A priestess flees an erupting volcano and other catastrophes, ending up on Easter Island.
- Dr. Steven Fisher (1995): Creation chants with hundreds of repetitions of something he interpreted as a formula reading “X copulated with Y, there issued forth Z.”
However, all of these interpretations have been dismissed in one way other another (particularly the more fanciful interpretations such as Dr. Carroll’s)… and of the many, many attempts at decipherment, none have been accepted as close or even somewhat close to an accurate decipherment.
It seems that the Easter Island Rongorongo script may remain one of the world’s unsolved mysteries after all!
Terrible word puns in the titles for this series aside, these articles introduce the nearly-unknown script from Easter Island called Rongorongo. In Part One, we learned that no one is quite sure when the script was actually invented, or why! Only that it was forgotten for hundreds of years, and tends to get overshadowed by the island’s giant stone statues.
Rongorongo uses symbols known as glyphs to convey meaning through the script, though what the script says…? No one knows! To this day, Rongorongo remains one of the undeciphered languages of the world.
What is known is that the glyphs were written left to right and bottom to top in a form called reverse boustrophedon. That means the reader starts at the bottom left corner, reads to the end of a line, then rotates the tablet 180 degrees to read the next line! Yes, that means the line above and below the one you’re reading are upside-down.
But if you finish the “page” and flip it over, the line continues from where it left off, meaning it now is read from top to bottom! Of course, the big question here is, what did they do for the giant tablets? You can’t flip those around… so maybe the inhabitants were just really good at reading upside-down script!
The glyphs themselves are similar to Egyptian hieroglyphs in that they’re stylized versions of objects or shapes (human, animal, geometric, plant) and can be drawn together to form what are assumed to be compound concepts or words. Birds are common in the script, along with turtles (who seem to have giant ears), fish, and arthropods.
Easter Island has a number of well-known petroglyphs, but only a few of these symbols in the script are similar to those!
How were the tablets carved? Tradition on the island says that they were cut with obsidian shards or shark teeth, which would have easily created the smooth, deep cuts that form the glyph symbols. Some of the tablets appear to have been cut with a steel blade, however… but these are crudely made, and it’s somewhat telling that steel wasn’t available on the island until after the arrival of the Spanish explorers!
While the script hasn’t been deciphered yet, what do historians think it might say?
Stay tuned for Part 3…!
Rongorongo is an indigenous Polynesian hieroglyphic script… and you’ve probably never heard of it before!
There’s a reason for that: it wasn’t discovered until the 19th-century on Easter Island. And of course, when talking about Easter Island, it just so happens that some giant pieces of stone tend to grab the spotlight…
While there hasn’t been much in the way of direct dating for the script, the only tablet that has been carbon dated (Tablet Q) resulted in a date of “sometime after 1680.” However, one of the specific glyphs—glyph 67—appears to represent the Easter Island palm tree, which went extinct around 1650. So, we know that the script is at least that old, if not older.
Part of the trouble with dating this ancient language stems from the Spanish explorers, who annexed the island in 1770. When the treaty was signed by both the Spanish and Easter Island chiefs, some of these Rongorongo glyphs were used—and some scholars have speculated that maybe the language was invented after the Spanish arrived and used for the treaty in particular.
Evidently, no explorer reported seeing the script prior to 1864, causing some historians to believe that the script may have been a result of trans-cultural diffusion—in other words, the locals saw Spanish writing and were inspired to create their own writing system.
But if that happened, it means the writing system was invented, used widely, disappeared, and became almost completely forgotten within—quite literally—less than a century. This would be highly unusual for any language!
Some have suggested that because the forest-clearing of Easter Island for agricultural use (and thus for permanent residents through colonization) began around 1200, the invention of Rongorongo can’t be earlier than the 13th-century—but that’s still a much later date than placing it at the Spanish annexation.
So, what does Rongorongo actually look like and what do the characters mean?
Stay tuned for Part 2…!
The problem of species extinction isn’t a modern-day invention—the story of how the dodo became extinct is probably one of the earliest non-dinosaur examples that everyone knows about, but dinosaurs and dodos aside, extinction has been an issue for… well, as long as humans have been around to mess things up.
A recent report has found that the first humans to settle the Pacific Islands weren’t just exploring and discovering… they were also destroying, and ended up leaving “a wave of extinct bird species in their wake.”
Humans are known for their destructive tendencies on existing species, but usually it’s the land mammal populations that suffer—creatures who are large enough to provide meat and resources. Historians and biologists are well aware that numerous large species in Australia were hunted to extinction about 40,000 years ago, and the first North Americans are guilty of the same between 10,000-20,000 years ago.
But when humans trekked their way to the Pacific Islands between 3500 and 700 years ago, they discovered something incredible! A number of bird species had actually evolved to be flightless, fearless, and more than a little rotund. The ecosystems of islands like Hawaii and Fiji had no real predators for these birds, so they just didn’t bother to fly anymore… why would they need to?
Sadly, humans thought this meant open season on the bird species, and hunted many of these species to extinction—and the other species? Well, because humans started burning away trees and natural plant life for the sake of agriculture, the other birds lost their habitats and died out that way.
The fossil record shows the extinction of these species, but until recently that record was rather incomplete. Some rough estimates on the numbers of total bird extinction have ranged from 800 to 2000 species. A study done at the University of Canberra has now pegged a more accurate number to be at least 983 species, and up to 1300.
What does that mean overall? It means that humans arriving in the Pacific Islands were responsible for theextinction of almost 10% of the world’s bird species.
If there’s any good news in this, it means archaeologists now know more or less what they’re looking for in terms of the remains of extinct species—so while these bird species are gone forever, the future may reveal their ancient remains and tell us about who they were and what species they were ancestors to.